Sat, 05 Apr 2003

Boycotting American products

Are those urging a boycott of all things American naive, foolish or dangerous? Anti-Americans seem naive to curse fast- food restaurants as the ugly face of global Americanization. It is like using kwetiauw to illustrate the danger of Chinese regional hegemony.

On the other hand, government opposition to a boycott is also bizarre. Just a few years ago officials fretted about diners switching from locally owned food stalls to foreign-franchised restaurants. Now they fret about diners switching from franchised restaurants back to the local eateries.

McDonald's will surely survive. It is clean, well-lit and efficient, and allows people of all ages, income groups (except the poor), races and religions to mingle comfortably. Apart from the food being junk, it is a great restaurant.

But this does not mean a boycott is foolish. In general, boycotts have two functions. Politically, they attack the economic interests of companies and governments, to encourage policy adjustments. These adjustments may be tiny: For example, a company trading on its American brand image may resort to advertising to play down its U.S. links. But they are significant.

Boycotts only become dangerous if the boycotters force others to join them. They have a political incentive to seek maximum support. They may feel more righteous than anyone else, and righteousness often weds intolerance. The stronger they become, the more they may feel justified in using fear and coercion. So it is not surprising if many people would prefer a boycott campaign not to get off the ground at all.

For the government, the first task is to explain its decision not to impose trade sanctions against the U.S. In practice, retaliation by the U.S. would inflict grave damage. In theory at least, Indonesia is a free country, unlike the U.S., where citizens face jail terms for buying products from Cuba.

So the government should maintain the right of Indonesians to buy American goods, no matter how much some Indonesians may hate the U.S. or its president. For the same reason, the government's second task is to ensure security for American businesses and their customers.

To buy, or not to buy American?: That is the question that everyone must answer of their own free will.